Letter to the Editor: Prince Rupert economy overlooked

The trade war over who makes the steel for the renovation of the Alaska ferry terminal in Prince Rupert is a tale of two economies.


Editor’s note: the following was received as “an open letter to our Alaskan neighbours”.

The recent trade war over who makes the steel for the renovation of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry terminal in Prince Rupert is a tale of two economies: The national economy and our local economy.

With Canadian politicians of all stripes opposing the investment in our community because of their distaste for “Buy American” restrictions, we fear that relationships that have been built up with our Alaskan neighbours over many decades may be jeopardized. We would like to make clear that not all Canadians share the view voiced by our federal and provincial leaders over the last few weeks.

In brief, here’s how the dispute has evolved over the last few months. Since the State of Alaska and the U.S. federal government are paying for the renovations, the project is subject to “Buy American” provisions. There are a few materials that would be caught under this legal umbrella – the main one being steel, which needs to be sourced from U.S. fabricators. Our international trade minister, Ed Fast, called the provision “an affront to Canadian sovereignty,” and signed an order under an obscure law, the Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act, to demand that “Buy American” be waived for this project.

The Alaskan state government responded by cancelling the tender call.

Here’s the rub: This sabre-rattling may look good from a political perspective but it’s positively backwards from the economic standpoint of main street B.C. The Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce welcomed this investment from day one, and while we may think the spirit of the “Buy American” law runs contrary to the nature of the free market, we were willing to look past that and look forward to a $15-million investment in our local economy.

No Canadian steel? No problem. Our local economy would have undoubtedly benefited from the project: Local contractors could have submitted bids for work that needed to be done, local workers could have taken part of the project, and our retail and hospitality sector would have seen a bump in revenue.  Indeed, the ultimate decision by the Alaskan government to defer the project is a blow to the local economy.

We would like to make clear that we treasure the relationships that have been forged with our neighbours to the north. The people of Northwest B.C. have done business with the people of Alaska for many years, and, in a sense, the ferry terminal in Prince Rupert was a symbol of that strong relationship. Reading the recent editorial in the Juneau Empire, which called for the Prince Rupert terminal to be closed for economic reasons, we fear this relationship has already been damaged. We hope we are wrong, because this relationship seeks to find common cause among people on either side of the border, and to find opportunities to work together in pursuits of reciprocal benefit.

It’s a relationship that sees Prince Rupert send delegates annually to the Southeast Alaska Conference, which incidentally we are hosting this fall. It’s a relationship that sends representatives from the City of Prince Rupert (and the Chamber of Commerce) to Ketchikan each Fourth of July to march in the Independence Day parade. Is there better proof of friendship than the sight of streets lined with crowds waving red maple leafs against a backdrop of red, white, and blue?

Please do not mistake the negative rhetoric around this important project as an attitude shared by your friends directly to the south. We value our relationship with you because we know, in part, how much it benefits our regional economy.

We would have hoped that this view was more widely held, making it easier for Alaskan ferries to continue plying our waters.

John Farrell, President, Prince Rupert & District Chamber of Commerce

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